Outstanding chamber music-making returns to Romsey

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dutilleux, Weiner, Schumann, Haydn, Webern, Beethoven: RCMF Quartet (Luke Hsu and Laura Rickard [violin], Marthe Husum [viola] and Rainer Crosett [cello]). URC Church, Romsey, 19.1.2024 and 21.1.2024. (CK)

RCMF Quartet © Terence Jamieson

Dutilleux – Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher
Weiner – Divertimento
Schumann – String Quartet No.1 in A minor

Haydn – String Quartet in D minor, Op.76/2
Webern – Langsamer Satz
Beethoven – String Quartet No.14 in C-sharp minor, Op.131

Outstanding chamber music-making returned to Romsey for a week in late January, thanks to the tireless work and talent of local violinist Laura Rickard and her friends. I do not write ‘tireless’ idly: they performed six concerts in local schools, spent Saturday morning working with sections of the Hampshire Youth Orchestra, and still managed to perform challenging programmes for their loyal audience on the Friday and Sunday evenings in the fine acoustic of their musical home, Romsey United Reformed Church.

On the Friday evening the main work was Schumann’s String Quartet No.1. Schumann’s three quartets used to be ignored or looked down on – and particularly this one, seen as the laborious fruit of his intensive study of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven rather than the spontaneous outpouring of his freewheeling lyrical gift. Well, all I can say is that it didn’t sound like that here: a drifting downward phrase from the first violin, echoed by the second, and the magic casements opened. So much to catch the ear in this opening movement: just a phrase, perhaps, as where the cello briefly plays above the viola. In the delightful Scherzo Mendelssohnian sprites come out to play (Mendelssohn is the quartet’s dedicatee); the sweetly ruminative slow movement – its main theme so suggestive of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – was movingly played, and the Vivace finale was attacked with vigour. Just before the end, Schumann allows us to glimpse another magical soundscape – hushed high violins over a drone on viola and cello: these players made sure that this moment had its full effect.

The concert had opened in sensational style with a performance by Rainer Crosett of Dutilleux’s Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher for solo cello, written at the request of Mstislav Rostropovich in 1976. Beginning tentatively, fragmentarily, this nine-minute piece generates increasing energy and passion, requiring expressivity and virtuosity from the soloist over a wide compass. Rainer played it from memory, with total commitment and conviction – the hallmarks of all the performances I have heard in Romsey. His lucid and engaging introduction to the piece was an example of another feature of the house style here, greatly appreciated by the audience.

A third regular feature is the involvement of local young musicians: a number of whom joined Laura and her friends to perform the Divertimento by Leó Weiner, a contemporary of Bartók and Kodály. They dispatched this suite of five traditional Hungarian dances with playing of character and verve – and, in the third dance, with delicacy. They captured the assertive masculinity of the verbunkos (recruiting dance – the best-known one is in Kodály’s Háry János Suite), and the violins executed their high-wire act in the concluding Gypsy Dance with aplomb.

RCMF Quartet © Philip Clewer

Friday’s concert was exhilarating enough: but Sunday’s reached for the stars. I wonder what string quartet players regard as the Everest of their genre: I imagine that not a few of them would pick Beethoven’s Op.131 in C-sharp minor (Beethoven apparently thought it his greatest work). More of that anon. First, we had another late masterpiece: Haydn’s String Quartet, Op.76/2 (‘Fifths’). The relentlessly inventive Allegro was given a dramatic and incisive performance – so much so that the Andante, gracefully and stylishly played, seemed a necessary relaxation before the so-called Witches’ Minuet broke in – earthy and fantastical music, the canon between upper and lower strings lending it a slightly unnerving quality, as if something – or someone – was being closely pursued. The rustic energy of the Vivace finale was vividly conveyed in playing full of character.

Before the main event, an unexpected treat. Most of Webern’s music is brief, atonal, elliptical and aphoristic: so it was delightful to hear his early, expansive Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement), especially when played as gorgeously as it was here, the climactic moments achieving a pitch of passion and intensity, even ecstasy.

And so, to the grave and moving opening of Beethoven’s Op.131: filaments of sound, finding their way into a slow fugue. These young players, so sensitively attuned to the music and to each other, led us through this ethereal landscape and on, via a brief scherzo and an even briefer transition, to the sublime set of variations at the quartet’s core; then out into the sunlight of the brilliant Presto, a miniature Adagio suggestive of a world of feeling, and so finally to the climactic energy of the concluding (and conclusive) Allegro. The players were wonderfully responsive to the music’s changing moods: beauty, dignity, sadness, energy – and, where necessary, that Beethovenian grit: music, as it were, through clenched teeth. It was astonishing – all the more so when one considers that the seven movements run continuously: almost forty minutes of unbroken playing. Demanding for the listeners, enormously taxing for the players. They all rose magnificently to the challenge: Luke Hsu’s playing (1st violin) had real fire, and their music-making was underpinned by Rainer Crosett’s lucid, expressive and rhythmically alert cello.

An extraordinary concert. Also – a smart move by Laura Rickard – the launch of the programme for the Summer Festival, entitled Of Love and Madness (24-30 June: click here for more information about the Romsey Chamber Music Festival 2024). It will begin with Cello Suites by Bach and Britten at dawn on the bank of the River Test; there will be string quartets by Beethoven and Janáček, Schumann’s Piano Quartet, Korngold’s Piano Quintet, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin and much, much more. A stimulating mix of the classical, the contemporary and the frankly voluptuous. What are you waiting for?

Chris Kettle

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